…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
A lush and beautiful costume piece of the late 1930’s, the Parisian story of Camille could easily have ventured into elaborate melodrama, but if you focus your attention solely on the good acting, it thankfully skirts that. Based upon a novel by Alexandre Dumas, director George Cukor masterfully pulls together an impressive cast of characters who bring color, gaiety, and a frolicsome mood to the piece, despite its heavy emotional and dramatic overtones. Within the cast, we see a very earnest and handsome Robert Taylor as Armand Duval, a cherubically funny (sometimes overly so) Laura Hope Crews as the brash and over-exuberant Prudence Duvernoy, Lionel Barrymore as Taylor’s strong-minded father Monsieur Duval, and a snobbish, wide-eyed, and coquettish Lenore Ulric as flirty Olympe. Amazingly enough, the title character is not named Camille, but rather, Camille is metaphorically represented by the character of Marguerite Gautier, portrayed by none other than the radiant Greta Garbo. This would become one of Garbo’s most well-known and cherished roles (and supposedly, her personal favorite). She marks an even smoother transition from her success as a silent film star to talking pictures with her work in this picture, and her casting in this role was quite simply ideal.
Marguerite (Garbo) is a social butterfly and courtesan in several of Paris’s high social circles in 1847. At any given time, she can be seen at an opera or gay social event or party, usually with several men admiring her wit and beauty. Though she lives a glamorous life of sorts, the script betrays at moments that she came from very humble beginnings. She also suffers from a frequent troublesome cough (foreshadowing). At an opera and through a curious case of mixed identity, she attracts the attention of two suitors, Armand Duval (Taylor) and the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell). Though she encourages the passionate advances of the young and handsome Armand, she keeps him at bay while she succumbs to being the ‘kept woman’ of the Baron. Armand nonetheless remains feverishly earnest, and pursues Marguerite with intensity. At her birthday party, he realizes that she is a sick woman, and his protective, caring nature in regards to Marguerite kicks into overdrive. What began as a flirtation between the two becomes a pretty serious love affair. When the Baron discovers Marguerite’s infidelity, he is furious – especially after footing several of her frivolous bills. Armand takes Marguerite to the countryside to rest and rejuvenate, but soon, Armand’s father catches wind of the romance. Hoping to discourage his son’s desertion of a more ‘sensible’ and profitable life in exchange for his romantic fancies, he encourages Marguerite to leave Armand – and soon. Marguerite, now completely in love and happy with Armand in the countryside, reluctantly and painfully attempts to carry out Monsieur Duval’s wishes by reuniting with the Baron to make Armand hate her and reject her. While he does become angry with her for her betrayal, his passion is still intense. When Marguerite falls seriously ill to tuberculosis at the end of the picture, he returns to make a final reconciliation.
I have long considered Greta Garbo a pro in the art of nuance. Watching her work in the silents is watching a master at her game. She was an expert at showing so much emotion without speaking words. In Camille, she carries this skill over – maybe to a lesser extent because she is speaking out loud and being heard – but it is evident just the same. Her voice is deep, resonant, and husky, which no doubt was something that worried producers who cast her in talking films at the time. What I found amazing was how she actually USED her vocal intonations throughout this film. When she is flirty and fun at the beginning of the film, her deeper voice is sexy and sensuous. When she is fragile at the end of the picture, her voice is broken, frail, and so pitiful. Marguerite is easily a character we could despise for her almost careless way of living, but when she falls deeply in love with Armand and then is asked by his father to become a martyr for Armand’s sake, we feel incredibly sad for her. It is so easy to do because of Garbo’s impeccable acting. Her gradual demise at the end of the film is draining and terribly sad to watch. We are grateful that Armand comes to her at the final and critical moment, just when she needs him for absolution.
While some may casually dismiss Camille as being overly melodramatic, it nonetheless stands as a testament to Garbo’s tremendous acting ability. Sure, it has its full-blown, giddily romantic “take me, I am yours” moments. If anything however, keep your eyes firmly on Garbo and you will be swept up into the story. I should also note the brilliance of Adrian’s luxurious gowns on Garbo; they are breath-taking and stellar!
Greta Garbo was one of the screen’s greats, yet Oscar sadly eluded her. Appearing in only 27 movies, she was nominated for Best Actress 4 times, and while she never snagged one golden boy for these roles, the Academy did honor her body of work with an honorary Oscar in 1954. She retired from film in 1941 and lived a reclusive life in a New York City apartment until her death in 1990.
Garbo lost the 1937 Oscar to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth.